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Risking Arrest at the White House

Posted by Erin Bechtol
09.28.18

By Rev. John Dear // Also posted on Waging Nonviolence

In the face of our ever-widening fascism, our steady assault on the poor, the earth, and the remnants of democracy, friends and I decided to up our ante and wage nonviolence with a modest, public Gandhian satyagraha campaign on the White House itself.

It began Friday afternoon, September 21st, in a church center in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of D.C., where we held a nonviolence training session followed by an evening panel discussion on the power and methodology of Gandhian/Kingian nonviolence through grassroots movements.

On Saturday morning, September 22nd, we gathered at 9 a.m. at the feet of the Dr. King statue near the Jefferson Memorial Tidal Basin to hear speakers call for a return to Dr. King’s wisdom of nonviolence. The rain had stopped and the water was beautifully calm. A large blue heron kept vigil at one end, and a tall white egret on another. Overhead, a flock of Canadian geese circled periodically over the statue and then landed back in the water. A U.S. military helicopter also circled overhead.

With Kit Evans Ford and George Martin as emcees, Lisa Sharon Harper of Freedom Road called us to resist the evils of systemic racism and sexism. Shane Claiborne recited the murder rate of the latest gun violence and wars and why we need to end them. Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, Pace e Bene and 350.org, urged us to break through our despair, numbness and paralysis, as Dr. King did, to protect Mother Earth. Ken Butigan outlined the strength of active organized nonviolence, as demonstrated by Dr. King, and I said it was time for all of us to rise to the occasion, and become mature champions of justice, peace and creation, that it was time for us to strive for the level of creative nonviolence modeled by Dr. King.

Then we set off. We lined up two by two, and walked off in silence, like Gandhi on the Salt March, like Thich Nhat Hanh in a Plum Village walking meditation, like Jesus on the road to civil disobedience in Jerusalem.

At the Lincoln Memorial, we knelt down in silence for a minute, as Dr. King did during the Birmingham marches. Thousands of tourists stopped to watch us, confused or curious. Each one of us held a blue sign with a Gandhi or King quote or calls such as “Abolish war, poverty, racism, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction! We want a culture of nonviolence!”

On we walked, past the reflecting pool, down the sidewalk along the black stone walls of the Vietnam memorial, past the names of the war dead. A park ranger started yelling at us and taking our peace signs, but one of our peacekeepers calmed her down. Most people seemed to understand and nod their heads in quiet appreciation.

Along Constitutional Avenue and 17th Street, we took another knee, trying to stay centered in our pledge for open, heartfelt nonviolence.

Then we reached Pennsylvania Avenue and walked to Lafayette Park. With a perfect blue sky overhead and a cool breeze blowing, we stood amidst the circus of thousands of tourists, tour groups, mimes, speakers, singers and police. We lined up holding our signs facing the White House and continued our peace vigil.

Then, ten of us walked right up to the White House fence, turned our backs, and held up our signs to the thousands of tourists. We had crossed the line into the no-protest zone. The police eventually approached, cleared an area around us on the sidewalk, and told us we would soon be arrested if we did not disperse. We thanked them and stayed put.

So began our stand off, or our stand for peace. Nearly two hours later, we were still there, and realized that, in fact, the police were not going to arrest us. We ended our witness, gathered in a circle for a closing prayer, and promised one another to keep building up the Campaign Nonviolence movement of nonviolent resistance.

Our action was part of our Campaign Nonviolence National Week of Action, which registered 2668 events, marches and actions across the U.S. in all fifty states and 24 nations. Wilmington, Delaware had over 100 events. St. Paul/Minn. had ten events, including a gathering of thousands for peace. Little Rock, Memphis and Raleigh had scores of events. Throughout the week of Sept. 15-24, 2018, tens of thousands of people connected the dots between racism, poverty, greed, war, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction, and called for justice and a new culture of nonviolence. (To see the list of events, click here; you can also watch a film of the DC event on Youtube.)

Each one of us, I believe, needs to take a turn, hold a sign, stand up, march in the street, take a knee, speak out, and even risk arrest in nonviolent civil disobedience against business as usual in present day fascist America. Each one of us can help break through the cultural despair, numbness and paralysis with simple, human gestures of nonviolence.

We received little press attention, but that’s part of the new normal. I myself called The Washington Post and the Associated Press after sending out a press release and told both editors of our week of action, and our D.C. march and civil disobedience, only to have them both hang up on me in mid-sentence.

This may be our future—small public acts of nonviolent resistance, with periodic mass mobilizations and breakthroughs like the Parkland students’ “March for Our Lives.” Through these small witnesses and actions, we break through the concrete of the culture like blades of grass, and rise up as mature human beings like Dr. King with a new vision in small satyagraha campaigns that will one day bear good fruit.

Through such human nonviolent gestures, we help wake each other up, strengthen the grassroots people power movement, connect the dots between the issues of systemic injustice and give each other hope and vision to resist the culture of violence and demand a new culture of nonviolence.

That’s the way of Gandhian satyagraha and Kingian nonviolence. Our Saturday march and protest were powerful because we discovered for ourselves the power of active nonviolence when exercised in our hearts and publicly on the streets. In the days ahead, we’re all going to have to become Gandhian satyagrahis if we want to remain fully alive, fully human, and fully nonviolent.

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